Review by Camden Ferrell
Chol Soo Lee might be a known name to people of a certain generation or a certain community, but it’s a story that could use more exposure. Directors Julie Ha and Eugene Yi aim to do just that with their newest movie. Free Chol Soo Lee is a documentary that had its premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It’s a highly informative film filled with plenty of empathy and intelligence, but it can suffer from a relatively weak execution that would lose the attention of the viewers if it weren’t for the compelling subject.
Chol Soo Lee was a Korean American immigrant who is most known for being wrongly convicted for the murder of a San Francisco gang leader in 1973. He was given a life sentence in one of the most brutal prisons where he had to navigate his new life filled with degradation and violence. The injustice against Lee soon sparked a national movement of people advocating for his release from prison. This is an amazing story that reveals so much about the prison system but mostly the enduring nature of the human spirit.
From the start, the documentary is adequately told and has a decent sense of storytelling. It is more informational than it is entertaining, and it needed more of a balance to truly stand out in the genre. The premise on its own is fascinating, but it still needs some personality in its structure and narrative to leave a lasting impression on the viewer.
The movie features archival footage, news clippings, and other old records to help tell its story, and one of the best parts about the movie was how it all felt naturally worked into the movie and the progression was present in its evidence and B-roll. That being said, there are times where what’s happening on screen isn’t the most compelling and doesn’t help support the interesting story they’re trying to tell.
What could have been a riveting documentary about a wrongfully convicted man turns into a safe and boilerplate retelling of events. It can still adequately communicate various ideas about injustice, persistence, and optimism, but it’s a message that could have been much more effective with different execution.
Regardless of its flaws, this is a culturally and historically important story that should be seen. It may not best the best documentary that could have been made about Lee, but it has the basic foundation down, and it is very informative.
Free Chol Soo Lee is in select theaters August 12.